(Feb. 17, 2021) On January 5, 2021, United Nations (U.N.) Secretary-General António Guterres issued a statement welcoming the news that Saudi Arabia had lifted the economic and political sanctions it had imposed on Qatar since 2017. Guterres was joined two days later by U.N. Special Rapporteur on unilateral coercive measures and human rights Alena Douhan, International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) Council President Salvatore Sciacchitano, and ICAO Secretary General Dr. Fang Liu in praising the new developments in the Gulf. The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra‘ad Al Hussein, had previously noted that the sanctions were overly broad in scope and implementation, and could therefore result in serious violations of human rights. The sanctions included the closure of Qatar’s sole land border with Saudi Arabia, the blockage of ports, and an air blockade. This first step toward normalized relations between the Gulf countries was memorialized in a “solidarity and stability” agreement among the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, signed on January 5 in Al-Ula, Saudi Arabia.
Background to the Sanctions
Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) imposed the 2017 sanctions in retaliation for Qatar’s alleged support for terrorist organizations. Specifically, the four countries alleged that Qatar had failed to abide by its commitments as outlined in the 2013–14 “Riyadh Agreements” of the GCC. The Riyadh Agreements commit Qatar to “cease supporting, financing or harbouring persons or groups presenting a danger to national security, in particular terrorist groups.” Notably, this refers to Qatar’s alleged support of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and other countries; Houthi rebels currently occupying northern Yemen in a protracted civil crisis that began in late 2014; and Qatar’s relationship with Iran.
Qatar’s Response to the Sanctions
Qatar responded to the sanctions in various international fora, including the World Trade Organization (WTO), the UN Committee on Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), the ICAO, and the International Court of Justice (ICJ). Meanwhile, Qatar also withdrew from the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) in early 2019.
In the WTO dispute, Qatar accused Saudi Arabia of failing to provide adequate protection of intellectual property rights of Qatar-based entities. The WTO Panel report was circulated to WTO members in June 2020, and Saudi Arabia has indicated that it is appealing the Panel decision to the WTO Appellate Body. In the CERD proceedings, the Committee reached historic decisions regarding jurisdiction and admissibility, and has appointed an ad hoc Conciliation Commission to amicably resolve the dispute. (Commission meetings were scheduled to take place the first few weeks of January 2021 but have been delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.) Qatar also instituted proceedings against the UAE at the ICJ with regard to alleged violations of CERD in 2018, and the ICJ began deliberations in the case in September 2020.
In the dispute brought before the ICAO, Qatar argued that the countries’ commitments under the Convention on International Civil Aviation (Chicago Convention, 1944) and the International Air Services Transit Agreement made the air blockade illegal. While the four countries challenged the jurisdiction of the ICAO at the ICJ in 2018, the ICJ rejected their appeal in July 2020, ruling that the ICAO has jurisdiction in the dispute. The ICAO has not yet made a determination regarding the legality of the air blockade.
In addition to the international dispute settlement mechanisms addressed above, it has also been reported that various Qatari companies, including Qatar Airways and beIN Corporation (a Qatari media corporation previously owned by Al Jazeera), have instituted several investor-state arbitrations against the four countries, claiming $5 billion in damages due to the sanctions.
The UN Special Rapporteur on unilateral coercive measures and human rights has urged the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt to also lift sanctions against Qatar and welcomed the fact that Qatar was invited to the GCC Heads of States summit held on January 5. While international disputes, including for damages and potential reparations, continue, the solidarity and stability agreement may mark the reestablishment of diplomatic and other ties between the Gulf nations.